The Covid-19 pandemic has created a great challenge for the school-going children. According to the United Nations report, more than 91 per cent of students worldwide have been impacted by temporary school closures. By May 2021, near about 1.6 billion young students will be out of school. As we have been experiencing the second year of the Covid-19 pandemic, and as cases continue to soar around the world, school is closed to save the lives of children and control of spreading of virus. Despite overwhelming evidence of the impact of school closures on children, many countries have opted to keep schools closed for nearly a year for safety of public health. The cost of closing schools affected 90 per cent of students worldwide with no access or little access to education.
Quality education mentioned in goal number 4 of the UN Sustainable Development Goals means a free, equitable, and quality primary and secondary education is now shattered by this pandemic. The school closures and absence of face to face interaction have created crucial problem for quality education. It is a good initiative that online classes have been started in some educational institutions, but most remote learning involves technology like tablets, laptops and internet access. Our rural students have a very limited opportunity of using high network of internet or having laptops.
Many children are facing severe physical and mental discomfort as they have been kept at home for a long time and are unable to socialise with their friends because of Covid-19 restrictions since the closure of educational institutions in March 2020. Students have been facing mental and psychological discomfort as their normal childhood is missing during the current pandemic. Recently one study by World Vision International revealed that 55 per cent of children shared their frustration with the state of staying at home and expressed that their lives have become troublesome due to long-term closure of schools. According to UNESCO, about 37 million students, including 17 million in primary education in Bangladesh, are out of in-person education and discontinuation of academic activities during this pandemic for last one year.
The reality is that the children's study has been suffering, and the skills they need to thrive in the economy of 21st century have weakened. Their health, development, safety and well-being are at risk. Without daily interactions with their peers and a reduction in mobility, they are losing physical fitness and showing signs of mental distress. That's why, complete closing schools should be a measure of last resort, after all other options have been considered. Segregating class time (two hours of 4 slots) with a small groups of students in rural areas by maintaining all health codes, classes as a test case may be started. Where there are high levels of community transmission, where health systems are under extreme pressure and where closing schools is deemed inevitable, only then it is important to close the school. If children are faced with another year of school closures, the effects will be felt tremendously on child psychology.
Birthdays, internships, graduations, living on campus, vacation plans, enjoying celebration of religious, social or cultural events are just a sample of the many significant life events that young people have been missing during Covid-19. Social distancing and limits to gatherings have affected their pleasure for not joining friends and family in person to celebrate functions. Some kids faced excessive worry or sadness, unhealthy eating or sleeping habits, and difficulty with attention and concentration and other signs of stress.
Students have been feeling anxious and just passing an idle life. Everyone knows that idle brain is devil's workshop. So they must be engaged anyhow and should not be remained idle for a long time. A work plan can be prepared for them such as teacher's and student's group study plan over zoom or Whats-App call. Teachers may be engaged with duties like constituting student's debating society or debate club to involve students in participating webinars on various thought provoking issues in each week. Teachers may play lead roles as moderator and assess students' performance as an extracurricular activity. Teachers may engage students by giving homework and assess their assignments, and may involve students by arraigning poetry recitation competitions, art or picture drawing competitions, national song recitation competitions, and essay writing competition on various thought provoking national development and welfare issues. Anyhow, they need to be engaged in constructive activities, otherwise they may engage in negative activities because human brain is not static. It is always moving towards either in positive direction or in negative direction. Thus children should be engaged with good ideas by their teachers. In this way, the teachers community themselves, their supervisors, school inspectors, upazila and district education officers will also get an opportunity to engage themselves.
On the other hand, at home, family has the responsibility to look in to this great depression time of their kids. Birthday parties and other social gatherings with children's friends are avoided for a long time. They need a good time with family as a substitute of social gathering. Family heads have a great role to create a healthy atmosphere at home. A common area like the living room or dining table can be a "quiet zone" during staying home. It may provide a space for child to engage in activities such as reading, writing or drawing with other family members at home. By watching online videos for exercise, they may maintain an exercise routine. Parents should have a calm, proactive conversation with their children about study and play to keeping themselves safe, healthy and happy. Parents should give them a sense of happiness such as enjoying breakfast, lunch, dinner together as a family. Many children are facing bullying in this difficult time. It is important children know that parents are always there for them if they experience bullying. Having a family game or cooking meals together may relieve them of their anxiety. Children rely on their parents to provide a sense of safety and security. Parents need to address their children's emotional and mental challenges in helping to ensure their well-being and safety during this difficult time.
Dr Md Shamsul Arefin is a former senior secretary, Government of Bangladesh.